One of the chief complaints in California, from those who have supported the idea of requiring all eighth-graders to take Algebra 1, is that the standards would build more flexibility into the state's math program. The standards call for teaching some algebra skills in eighth grade, but spreads them out over subsequent grades as well. California could decide to add to the standards by requiring all typical Algebra 1 activities to take place in eighth grade, but it would be a mistake to do so. The eighth-grade requirement, which has been challenged in court, was poorly thought out. Close to half of California's students don't take algebra by eighth grade, and about 40% who do are not proficient in it by the end of the year. The standards outline a more sensible approach of making sure that students grasp the necessary skills as they progress. In fact, it's very similar to the way algebra is taught in Japan, one of the world's most successful countries at teaching math.
Some English teachers might blanch because the standards deemphasize the study of literature and instead stress the importance of training students, from the earliest years, to read more nonfiction — from newspapers to textbooks and primary research papers — and develop better skills at pulling information from those readings, using it to build cogent arguments and analysis.
Colleges and universities have long complained that students reach higher education without the necessary adeptness at extracting information from written sources, thinking about it critically and writing about it masterfully. Employers complain that job-seekers are inept at comprehending and following instruction manuals or at using critical-thinking skills to reach useful conclusions. Literature should remain an important component of English education; the ability to unlock the world of stories is how children first get excited about reading. But there has been too little focus in California's public schools on thinking analytically and too much emphasis on the five-paragraph essay.
One topic the standards do not address adequately is the education of students who are not fluent in English. This is where California should concentrate when it comes to adding to the standards.
But the state board doesn't need to address any of these concerns in order to approve the standards on Aug. 2. It can take time to refine its amendments. Implementation of the standards is expected to take place over the next four years.
Making it happen
The standards encourage a different kind of instruction than California's teachers have been urged to do over the past several years. They should open pathways to more creative classroom work.
But California's experience shows that high standards don't necessarily translate into a first-rate education. California will have to change its curriculum to match the standards, and that will mean eliminating topics or books that are held dear by one group or another and completely refashioning its approach. The state — and the nation as a whole — will need much better textbooks than are now widely available. Those books should have richer content, better writing and fewer flashy but distracting graphic elements. Teachers must be well trained.
Finally, teachers cannot change how they teach until better standardized tests are devised to reflect this welcome change in pedagogical thinking. Such tests will have fewer fill-in-the-bubble questions; instead, they will examine whether students can think through a mathematical process, understand concepts, read critically and write with persuasion and grace.
Fortunately, if dozens of states are working on these issues together, all of this will cost less and happen more quickly, because the states can share the expense of devising new textbook requirements, professional development and tests. There will be no need for each state to reinvent the academic wheel. California should become one of those states, starting with these common academic standards that are demanding enough to be proud of and engaging enough to touch off an era of more meaningful classroom instruction.